John Wayne

April 28, 2008
Freelancing and other acts of stupidity cannot be tolerated at any time. One must look at the big picture, what will be the final result?

Just how lucky are you? After watching numerous interviews of military veterans from various conflicts across the globe, the survivors all state a common theme, they were very lucky to survive. They recalled story after story where a fellow soldier, often just a few feet away, suffered a horrible fate. They did not brag about any special skills other than the inherit will to survive. Their only choices usually concluded with either kill or be killed.

We in the fire service, however, do have a choice in the matter. Except in extremely rare occurrences, it is not directed bullet or a random bomb that kills us. As intelligent beings supposedly in control of our actions, we have the ability to make informed decisions about what we do or do not do. Time after time, we arrive, establish command per incident command systems or the National Incident Management Systems (ICS/NIMS) guidelines, do our incident size-ups, initiate either a defensive or offensive operation, perform some version of Rescue, Exposure, Confinement, Extinguish, Overhaul, (RECEO) and hopefully at the end, pack it up and everyone goes home. This is not always the case. Just check the latest line of duty death numbers. My question to you is, why does this continue to happen?

In my opinion, this occurs because of the on-going behavioral culture. Call it what you may...cowboying, John Wayneing, whatever. Our brawn is most often bigger than our brain. "Balls to the wall" is the way most of us are programmed to think from day one. This is what the "good firemen", the ones that rookies really look up to, preach on a daily basis, that safety is optional, dependent on the situation. They may even infer, directly or indirectly, that safety is something practiced by "lesser firemen".

It goes without saying that we must be aggressive in order to execute our job in a timely and efficient manner. The level of aggressiveness must be first be calculated and then managed by the incident commander and the incident safety officer. Freelancing and other acts of stupidity cannot be tolerated at any time. One must look at the big picture, what will be the final result? How many times have you fought to the death only to see a track hoe tear down your hard-earned "save" the very next day?

Chief Kelvin Cochran of the Atlanta Fire Department summarized individual situational dangerous incident actions very well,"There is a very fine line between a Medal of Valor and a thirty-day suspension". Everything is alright until something goes wrong. Safety statisticians allude to the fact that the average person will commit an unsafe act over three hundred times before a serious injury or death eventually occurs. I maintain that we in the fire service are for the most part a pretty lucky bunch of individuals.

The old adage is "risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, risk nothing to save nothing". We must take calculated risks when there is a reasonable chance to save a human life - period. We now build disposable cars and homes. Residential sprinklers are cheaper than the average lawn sprinkler installation; are they becoming prevalent in your community? Fire chiefs across this great nation need to educate themselves, come together and stand up against the building lobby in their respective states. Mandatory residential sprinkler legislation in now an affordable, proven strategy that would would save countless lives, primarily the lives of firefighters.

Firefighters need to take a moment and really think about what they are about to enter, is the risk worth the gain? Are they going to walk out a whole person? Is someone going to have to risk their life to come and drag you out because of your John Wayne attitude? Don't rely on luck; instead, rely upon on your own education, experience, training and each other to live to fight again. I hate to tell you this, but John Wayne was just acting; you my friend, are doing it for real.

DAVID MURPHY, a Contributing Editor, retired as Assistant Chief of the Richmond, KY, Fire Department and is currently an associate professor in the Fire Safety Engineering Technology Program located at The University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Dave is the Eastern Director of the Fire Department Safety Officers Association. To read David's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here.

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